A balmy holiday vacation turns into a business trip for the University of New Mexico women’s basketball team Thursday.
After two days of mostly sun and fun in Cancun, Mexico, the Lobos (5-0) take on power conference foes Missouri and No. 23 West Virginia on back-to-back days at the Cancun Challenge. It starts with a Thanksgiving contest against the Tigers at the Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya, and UNM coach Mike Bradbury knows his team can’t afford to be sluggish after a big holiday meal set for Wednesday night.
“Missouri plays just like us,” Bradbury said. “They’re going to run, shoot a ton of 3s and try to score 100 (points). We normally like to play fast, but we won’t have any choice in this game.”
The Tigers (2-4) average 73.8 points per game, but that’s 10 fewer than the Lobos, who rank 18th nationally at 84.6 points per contest. The matchup intrigued UNM sophomore guard Jayla Everett, a St. Louis native who became familiar with Missouri’s program over the years.
“They recruited me,” Everett said, “and I like the way they play. It’ll be interesting, too, because my family will be there. But I’m just taking it as another game – play hard and try to get a win.”
Long-range shooting figures to be a key factor as neither team is shy about pulling the trigger. Missouri has attempted 172 3-pointers through six games and has three players hitting 44% or better. UNM has tried 132 3-pointers through five games, with Ahlise Hurst (56.8%) by far the most accurate sniper. She ranks second nationally with 25 3s.
If Thursday’s game stacks up as a track meet, Friday’s meeting with West Virginia does not. The Mountaineers (4-0) have size, strength and prefer a grinding, defensive style. They’ve limited opponents to 42.3 points per game this season.
“They try to out-physical you and basically punk you,” Bradbury said. “(As of Tuesday) we ranked 11th nationally in pace of play, which includes shots and possessions. West Virginia was 312th. We really couldn’t have two more opposite opponents on back-to-back days.”
West Virginia is paced by 5-foot-9 guard Kysre Gondrezick, who averages 21.5 points per game in spite of her team’s deliberate style. She’s 14-of-27 from 3-point range this season.
“It’ll be different playing that type of team,” UNM sophomore Shai McGruder said, “but I’m looking forward to it. We have to rebound in that game. We really don’t want to play their slow-down game.”
Both Everett and McGruder admitted they were looking forward to spending time in Cancun. Neither had been to Mexico previously and the all-inclusive Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya offers a number of interesting diversions, including swimming with dolphins.
“Count me in for that,” Everett said.
The 10 participating Cancun Challenge teams can take advantage of the resort’s amenities. Bradbury said the five-night stay costs roughly $1,600 per person, which comes out of UNM’s women’s basketball budget.
“If we played road games at Missouri and West Virginia it would cost just about the same amount,” Bradbury said. “This kind of trip is something we only do every few years. It’s a great experience for the players – as long as we take care of the basketball part.”
“I’ve definitely never had a Thanksgiving like this,” the Ohio native said. “Everybody back home will be cold and I’ll be in Mexico on a beach.”